In Sunday’s NCAA quarterfinal win over Franklin & Marshall, however, the defense stole the spotlight. If it hadn’t, the No. 2 Sea Gulls (21-0) wouldn't be playing in Saturday’s NCAA Division III semifinal.
The Sea Gulls' attack struggled when the Diplomats put a face guard on offensive leader Katie Bollhorst, but the defense remained its usual stingy self and made sure Salisbury came away with an 8-6 victory in their closest call of the season. No other team had come closer than within six of the Sea Gulls, whose average margin of victory is 11.19 goals.
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Goalie Ashton Wheatley said she and her field unit – Laura Maskell, Meghan Toomey, Kat Gartner, Alyssa Hardesty, Dominique Dipino and Allison Toomey -- know defense takes on even more importance during the playoffs.
“Everybody says, ‘Defense wins championships.’ I think it really comes down to our offense and defense feeding off each other. If offense is having a great game, defense always has a great game, but if we’re starting out a little slow on offense then we come together in our defensive huddle and say, ‘We’ve really got to come out and hold up this game.’ Our defensive unit knows how important we are,” said Wheatley, a Salisbury School graduate and last season’s Division III Goalie of the Year.
The Sea Gulls defense has held teams to a remarkable 5.14 goals per game.
“Our defense works so well together. They’re all on the same page,” Salisbury coach Jim Nestor said. “They have confidence in each other. First of all, with Ashton back there, they know if they get beat somehow, they can have confidence in their goalie. They communicate well and they’ve worked hard all season in practice.”
The Sea Gulls, who fell in the national final last season, call their defense 6D – six players, one defense – and Nestor complements his line defenders with midfielders Bethany Baer and Kara Koolage to lock down opponents. Wheatley’s 5.51 goals-against average and .553 save percentage back it all up.
In hindsight, the close game against Franklin & Marshall wasn’t a bad thing going into Saturday’s national semifinal against Middlebury – a rematch of last year’s semifinal – at Stevenson University at 10:30 a.m.
“It was a really good game to have especially in post season because the pressure was there,” Wheatley said. “During the season, we haven’t had that many close games, so I think a close game like that with the pressure and the adrenaline was through the roof was good to get us in a mindset where everything had to be just right. We've got to make those passes. We’ve got to make those plays. Even if we can’t score all the time, if we don’t let them score, they can’t win.”
The Sea Gulls, who won the national championship in 2010, are seeded second behind defending champion Trinity, Conn. The final four stacks up exactly the same as last year with Trinity meeting SUNY-Cortland in the other semifinal Saturday at 1:30 at Stevenson. The title game is set for noon Sunday at Stevenson.